PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) - Kosovo's newly elected president said Friday that the ethnic Albanian demand for independence from Serbia remains non-negotiable.
Fatmir Sejdiu was elected by Parliament to fill the post left by the death of pro-independence leader Ibrahim Rugova last month and paves the way for the start of U.N.-mediated talks on Kosovo's future status.
Sejdiu, 54, said that assuming the post at this delicate time is a "heavy burden and responsibility," as Kosovo leaders prepare to negotiate with Serbia's officials over the future of the disputed region later this month.
Sejdiu, the province's second president since the 1999 war, holds positions on Kosovo's status that are nearly identical with those of his predecessor, who dominated the province's politics for 16 years and epitomized ethnic Albanians' quest for Kosovo's independence from Serbia. Rugova died of lung cancer on Jan. 21.
Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since NATO launched a bombing campaign to end a Serb crackdown on independence-minded ethnic Albanian rebels in 1999.
The presidential post is largely ceremonial, but it has gained importance because the president heads the team that will negotiate in U.N.-mediated talks with Serb officials.
"Kosovo's independence is non-negotiable," a soft-spoken Sejdiu said during an interview with the Associated Press at his modest house in Pristina. "For us it is very important that this road to independence is a quick one," he said.
Talks between Kosovo and Serbia on the province's future are expected to start around Feb. 20 in Vienna, the Austrian capital. The first round will deal with the reform of local government, aimed at giving Serbs and other minorities greater say in areas where they live.
Western diplomats recently indicated that Kosovo's quest for independence from Serbia was conditional on it becoming a democracy that respects minority rights with reform of local government being a key to that goal.
"We consider the reform of local government necessary for all of Kosovo's citizens," Sejdiu said. This reform, according to him, should not allow the ethnic Albanian majority to behave in a dominating way and should not allow creation of enclaves where Serbs live separate lives.
Sejdiu, is considered a moderate in the province's largest party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, which he served as secretary-general. He was one of the founders of the party in the early 1990s, and has served as a member of Kosovo's parliament since 2001. He holds a law doctorate and is a professor at Pristina University. He is married and has three sons.